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Shea Smith starts the middle-school digital media class he teaches with a ritual: He asks his students to open up their Chromebooks and answer a simple question, “How are you feeling today?”

The students answer on a Google form by clicking on one of three emojis—a happy face, a straight face (indicating “Meh”) or a frowny face. A second fill-in-the-blank question invites students to add if there is anything else they’d like to tell the teacher, though that’s optional.

In seconds, Smith gets the results that he can scan to get what he calls a “temperature check” on the emotional state of his students, which he can use to inform how he’ll tackle teaching the lesson of the day.

“It’s quite interesting how much students are willing to share through a Google form that they wouldn’t raise in class,” he says. Some have shared personal struggles that lead him to refer them to the school counselor, or to give a fellow teacher a heads-up that a student might be particularly stressed-out. And in some cases, students share wins in their personal lives, like one who noted he won a soccer tournament the day before, which Smith made sure to congratulate him on in a spare moment during class.

Smith says that many of his colleagues at the school have started similar social-emotional check-ins since returning to in-person teaching after pandemic lock-downs. And the school is not alone: National experts say they’re seeing such practices on the rise in recent months, with some schools adopting specialized software to create prompts and quickly deliver results to teachers.

Even though a question like ‘how are you doing?’ may seem like it has little to do with academic work, a growing body of research shows that being more attuned to student emotions and the challenges they’re facing outside of the classroom helps teachers better connect with students and build relationships that can be key to keeping students engaged in the learning process.

“Building that sense of connection accelerates learning,” says Karen Van Ausdal, senior director of practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). “There’s been a false dichotomy of, ‘You can pay attention to academics or you can pay attention to social-emotional learning.’ Now people realize that you can’t separate these two. You can’t pay attention to learning without these relationships, and vice versa.”

Building Connections

When school returned fully in person at Thompson Independent School outside of Houston after months of online-only instruction due to COVID-19, principal Tanis Griffin decided to focus on building relationships between students and teachers.

That meant changing the schoolwide schedule to build time into the school day for teachers to mentor students. And it meant asking teachers to try a new ritual in homeroom on Tuesdays, where teachers send a self-reflection prompt to students that they can respond to with either a short written answer or a short video or audio clip.

The prompts, chosen from a menu by each teacher, include ice-breaker type questions, like tell me about a favorite memory or what is your favorite ice cream flavor. Students have several days to send their reply, and teachers respond when appropriate.

“You don’t have to do it in front of other students,” says Griffin, who notes that only the teacher sees the reflections. “A lot of kids, they want to talk, but they don’t want to in front of classmates.” Some of the quietest kids in classes have done the most sharing with their teachers during their weekly reflections, she adds.

The school adopted a software tool called Along to run the reflection process, which is one of several similar tools that have cropped up in recent years.

Griffin says having the bank of questions and the set time in the day where everyone in the school is doing such reflections has been especially helpful to teachers who may not have been as comfortable forging relationships with their students in the past. “That’s not something you learn when you’re going to school to be a teacher,” she says. “You don’t take a class to learn how to build relationships with kids.”

Still, some teachers took some convincing. “Some teachers worried, ‘What if student shares something that is concerning?’” says Griffin. Her reply to them was that it’s best to find out what students are going through, and that teachers can always refer them to other resources or bring in authorities when necessary. “That’s what we do—we take care of children. Some of it is sad and heavy, yes, but that’s why we’re here. We’re here to help kids,” she adds.

It’s turned out that, yes, students are dealing with a lot of hardship these days.

“We knew it was going to be tough coming back, but we didn’t realize how tough it would be,” says Griffin. “So many people have lost loved ones,” she adds, and so many families have faced other personal and financial challenges in the last two years as well.

While tech tools are often part of this trend of checking in with how students are feeling, plenty of schools are adding low-tech approaches to make sure they understand the ups and downs students are going through outside of school, says Van Ausdal, of CASEL.

Some schools have paired every student with an adult “navigator,” with each adult assigned to a cohort of 8 to 10 students to mentor. Other schools just make sure to have more staff around to greet students as they enter the building in the morning.

“It’s amazing how much you can tell in a 10-second interaction with a young person whether they slept well, whether there’s something wrong,” says Van Ausdal.

Many schools were doing things like this before the pandemic, but Van Ausdal and others say the practices have grown and evolved in recent months.

“My hope and my prediction is that it is here to stay,” she says. “Once people engage in this, they see that it works.”



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